India can’t afford to remain an ostrich

For lawmakers to look away as clandestine betting flourishes is a disservice to sport

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Our laws on sports betting are steeped in a misplaced sense of morality that is far removed from the reality of modern India. Almost a year after the Law Commission of India recommended that betting be legalised, no moves have been made to enact a law that takes into account the realities of the digital age and the global scene.

Most Western nations, which lay far greater stress on conflict of interest and ethics in sport, allow for some form of betting. While the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Spain allow all forms of gambling, the United States has a more state-specific approach. The law commission advocated that Parliament come up with a model legislation which could then be examined and tweaked by state governments for implementation. Sports gambling and betting are covered under the state list and the Centre can only suggest guidelines.

Horse racing has not faced any strictures when it comes to betting. So, the logic of not extending this to other skill-based sports doesn’t hold much credence beyond what appears to be the jaundiced notion that the population at large doesn’t have the mental bandwidth to not be led astray.

The law panel also suggested a cap on the number of bets that can be placed, linking of PAN and Aadhaar cards to bets while dividing them into small and large depending on the amounts in contention. That may well allow checks on compulsive gambling and prevent it from morphing into a psychological disorder. If bets are legalised, the spectre of fixing may also be exorcised as significant betting patterns can be traced and then linked to sporting performances. Shashi Tharoor had even introduced a private Bill in December 2018 advocating for legalisation but nothing came of it.

The UK is a classic example of how sport can benefit from gambling as the primary source for sports funding comes from the National Lottery. This then goes into investing in long-term development programmes as well as fostering sporting activities for the lay citizen.
India’s approach to sports betting has been largely ostrich-like. Enough scandals and investigations have revealed that there is rampant betting on cricket matches. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has taken cognisance of exposes to ban many a player over the years. Just that for want of a legal framework that can penalise them or control them, most of these cases haven’t held up in court. The International Cricket Council’s anti-corruption unit also concluded that India is a massive hub for bookies and alluded that legalisation would help check the menace.

FICCI has been pushing for betting for a number of years. Its functionaries have gone on record to say that the move would bring under the legal ambit economic activities in the range of Rs 3,00,000 crore and that in turn will only help foster sport and welfare activities as this is a revenue stream that is going untapped. Legalising betting can also generate jobs and bring in foreign direct investment to states that look to casinos to give a boost to tourism.

The fact remains that India has failed to rein in clandestine betting in sports. This has become the domain of the mafia and criminal elements. It in turn has led to an inflow into a parallel economy which further creates law and order problems. Instead of letting this revenue go into unscrupulous hands, prudence suggests that this be channelised through a structured format, which would allow for fostering the growth of sport. Estimates put the size of the illegal betting market in the vicinity of Rs 10 lakh crore and all this money is flowing into the hands of the underworld.

The UK will invest £309 million derived from its National Lottery into sport in from 2017 to 2021. At the same time, betting regulators in the UK suggest that there may be as many as two million problem gamblers who risk addiction. This negative social fallout notion doesn’t cut much ice with proponents of legalisation as they assert that India may have many more such addicts than the UK, but since all betting happens underground, there is no way to even monitor such indexes.

There is a mythological slur on gambling in India as the epic Mahabharata illustrates how the Pandavas lost their kingdom in a game of dice. But the reality of modern India is far removed from the morality of the epics and it is time our lawmakers recognised that. For lawmakers to look away even as clandestine betting flourishes in the country is a disservice to sport.

Sukhwant Basra is a former sports editor of Hindustan Times

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